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Prejudice in the Cause of Security

ECONOMIC AND POLITICAL WEEKLY Prejudice in the Cause of Security If only the Indian government showed as much concern for its citizens on home soil as it did recently for those who encounter prejudice on foreign lands. In the incident in which 12 Indian (many of whom were bearded) passengers were arrested at Amsterdam airport for

September 2, 2006 ECONOMIC AND POLITICAL WEEKLY
Prejudice in the Cause of Security If only the Indian government showed as much concern for its citizens on home soil as it did recently for those who encounter prejudice on foreign lands. In the incident in which 12 Indian (many of whom were bearded) passengers were arrested at Amsterdam airport for “suspicious” behaviour on a flight that had just taken off from Schipol airport and then set free for want of any incriminating evidence, the ministry of external affairs (MEA) averred that it took this “mishandling” of affairs by the Dutch authorities “very seriously” and even hinted that the singling out of passengers amounted to racial profiling. Perhaps we should be grateful for the MEA’s intervention, as the friends and families of the arrested individuals certainly must be, but it comes across as something of a farce when the government is doing much of the same thing in its own backyard. After the bomb blasts on Mumbai’s local trains on July 11, the police have singled out the Muslim community in the city, and outside, for its attentions: the anti-terrorist squad (ATS) investigating the blasts started “combing” operations within two days of the explosions. Two hundred persons were picked up by the ATS in the Malwani area of Malad in a “night-long operation”, though only 14 were finally detained and 150 “preventive arrests” were made; 300 were rounded up from the Naya Nagar slums in Mahim, with residents complaining they were dragged out of their homes by policemen – 11 were finally detained. Security forces virtually laid siege to the Muslim dominated city of Aurangabad where 30 kg of RDX was seized earlier in the year. One newspaper reported that the state government has directed the police to investigate Muslims who journey abroad often. In fact, as the search for the perpetrators of the blasts has shown, even phone calls made to Dubai, Karachi or Bangladesh can be reason enough to invite scrutiny. What is happening now is serious not only because it further alienates a minority that in this country is already at siege, but also because it represents a cavalier disregard for the most basic civil liberties and human rights. Rounding up of “suspects” based on what could loosely be termed as profiling based on religion; then the improper, and quite possibly illegal, extension of custody of suspects after the initial remand period of 15 days; and vigilantism of the kind described earlier represent nothing less. Paranoia about terrorist attacks, it seems, has made us insensitive to such niceties. One could go a step further and say that such paranoia leads to an unquestioning acceptance of the statist view of things, in which the media too has been complicit. The willing suspension of disbelief, if you will, or lack of interrogation and introspection in reportage of the blast investigations is striking. The recent “encounter” killing that took place at Antop Hill in Mumbai, in which an alleged Pakistani terrorist was killed, went more or less unquestioned, although it was not clear how the ATS ascertained the nationality of the deceased nor how the police escaped unhurt when the suspect allegedly fired 18 rounds at them. One newspaper did point out that an encounter killing of an alleged Lashkar-e-Taiba operative and the recovery of arms and ammunition in a Maruti 800 car, seems to routinely follow every bomb blast in the city. Further, although the chief of the ATS refused to pin responsibility on any group some days after the blasts, television channels did not quite suffer from the same reservations. The assumption of the guilt of detained individuals is also common place: they are variously described as terrorists, mercenaries or operatives without even the most routine qualification, much like Sikhs were in the mid and late 1980s. This creates a particularly dangerous situation, for not only does it brand people as terrorists before they are proven guilty, it hands law enforcement agencies almost unchecked power and immunity. It also forecloses the investigation of other possibilities. The investigations might finally point in the direction of the very same Islamist terrorist groups that have been named and the individuals who have been arrested in this connection. But the issue here is a larger one: it is the automatic association of one particular community

with terrorist activity in the public mind, as well as the lack of scrutiny of and protest against the way people are being targeted and rights and freedoms are being violated. Such a condition must have consequences for society as a whole as well, for it signifies a greater belief in essentialising ways of knowing and a certain indifference as to its effects. It is well known how these inclinations can be used to service the darker forces of history.

EPW

Economic and Political Weekly September 2, 2006

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